Rising Damp rises again on stage
TV classic Rising Damp is the latest sitcom to be resurrected on stage, following the likes of Yes, Prime Minister and Steptoe & Son.
Actor Don Warrington and writer Eric Chappell discuss reviving the show and how to deal with Rigsby's racist views.
It is 35 years since Rigsby, Miss Jones, Alan and Philip last congregated in their crumbling boarding house in Rising Damp, the 1970s sitcom that is often cited as ITV's greatest ever comedy.
Now the characters have been reunited for a theatre tour, which began in Blackpool earlier this week.
The original cast are not on stage, of course - Leonard Rossiter, who played Rigsby, and Richard Beckinsale, who played Alan, died many years ago.
As for Frances de la Tour and Don Warrington, who played lovelorn singleton Miss Jones and student Philip, they are 35 years older.
But there are links with the original - Warrington is back as director, while writer Eric Chappell has dusted off his scripts.
The end result is just the latest attempt to recreate comedy gold on stage. Yes, Prime Minister has been a hit in the West End, while TV favourites from Dad's Army to Dinnerladies have made theatre comebacks.
After the flood of West End movie adaptations, it is perhaps no surprise that theatre producers have now turned to TV for source material.
The only problem is that they have to live up to memories that fans have of beloved shows they watched every week for years.
Warrington believes the new cast cannot hope to replicate the chemistry between Rising Damp's original co-stars.
"You can't," he says. "The coming together of that bunch of people made the show happen, and you can't recreate that. So what you have to try and do is create something anew.
"What I'm asking them to do is to create anew. It's theirs, it doesn't belong to anybody else - to me or anybody."
The show is being staged by producers David Graham and Jan Hunt of Classic Comedy Productions, who have also put on theatre versions of Dinnerladies, Birds of a Feather and Keeping Up Appearances.
SITCOM TO STAGE
- Yes, Prime Minister (above) was revived in 2010, has been in the West End and is now on a UK tour
- Steptoe & Son, which stitched four old episodes together, gave the sitcom a darker edge on stage last year
- Fawlty Towers begot Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience, in which the comedy unfolds around the audience as they tuck into dinner
- A stage version of Birds of a Feather has reunited original cast members Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph
- Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant gave amateur drama group Dudley Little Theatre permission to host the live premiere of The Office earlier this month
Graham is realistic about why people come. "I think there's a big nostalgia thing, obviously," he says.
"It's the characters and situations that they know and love and remember, and so the familiarity is very important.
"In these austere days, when people go to the theatre, they may be a little bit more selective about what they go to.
"I'm sure it's really tough for new writers out there because, in the main, I think people have that 'we like what we know' attitude."
As a result, Graham is more keen than Warrington for the new Rising Damp cast to fit a familiar mould.
"The route we went down was to get a cast who were as close physically and naturally to the actors who portrayed those parts originally," he says.
"We went through a very long audition process to find actors who are good actors in their own right who could bring something of themselves to the part, but who are still naturally close enough to the characters so that people wouldn't feel like they didn't recognise it."
Rising Damp started life as a play titled The Banana Box, which introduced the shabby landlord Rigsby and his equally shabby boarding house in 1973.
Writer Eric Chappell has used that script as the basis for the new show, peppering it with famous lines from the subsequent sitcom.
There is another problem though. Like many domestic sitcoms from the 1970s, Rising Damp now feels terribly dated.
For many, as well as fond recollections of Leonard Rossiter's comic acting, the name Rising Damp conjures memories of Rigsby's casual racist barbs.
Although the joke was always on the feeble Rigsby and not the unflappable Philip, such jibes would never be allowed today.
End Quote Eric Chappell Rising Damp writer
Now and again you see a line and it makes you wince a little”
Chappell has decided to remove some of the most offensive language from the revived play, but insists Rigsby has not been totally watered down.
"At the time, I was aware of sensitivities," Chappell says. "But I always made Philip the winner and I was determined right from the start, that's how I saw it.
"So although the barbed remarks from Rigsby are barbed, Philip always had an answer to them. It always came from Rigsby's envy and general uncertainty about his life, so I didn't think there was any whiff of racism.
"But nevertheless, in stage productions, in this modern age, now and again you see a line and it makes you wince a little. Maybe I did cut a couple."
Warrington says the lines in question did not bother him when he was in the show because they were "patently ridiculous". They should not be off limits now, he adds.
"Plainly, Rigsby was… er… stupid," he says. "It's a period piece. It was set in its time and in its place.
"It's remaining a period piece. Nobody is going to pretend it's now. These characters couldn't exist today so it's firmly set in the late '60s, early '70s.
"People did hold the view that Rigsby holds, but I think we do have to, from time to time, revisit the past to see how we were then."
Rising Damp is at the Blackpool Grand Theatre until 18 May. It then tours to Darlington, Salford, Malvern, Norwich, Sheffield, Woking, Bradford and Richmond.